Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park: Black Hills, South Dakota

wildlife loop black hills

The Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park is part of Black Hills National Forest of western South Dakota. Located in the southern region of the Black Hills, it’s a great drive to not only see the wildlife its name implies, but to see some of the Black Hills’ most beautiful scenery.

As is usual when looking for wildlife, you’re more likely to see them earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon or evening. Especially during the hot summer days.

Here’s what you can expect:

The Wildlife

AMERICAN BISON—Once covering the Great Plains by the millions, the bison was hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s. Custer State Park is a great place to get a glimpse of these huge animals. The first time our family was at Custer we got to witness the awesome sight of a couple hundred of them in one meadow—even crossing the road.

american bison
Bison are a common site in the Black Hills

PRONGHORN—Common in most parts of Wyoming and western South Dakota, America’s fastest land animal can also be seen along the Wildlife Loop. Did you know they can sprint over 50 miles-per-hour and maintain a 25-30 mph pace for miles at a time?

WILD BURRO—Custer’s burros originally came from domesticated stock, like the wild horses of the West. Unlike wild horses, though, the burros continue to act tame several generations later! Both times our family has driven the Wildlife Loop we saw these furry, long-eared, friendly beasts.

They acted more like dogs—walking right up to us, looking for food, even sticking their noses in car windows. No shyness with them!

These are “wild” burros 🙂

MOUNTAIN SHEEP & GOAT—We haven’t gotten to see these more elusive, higher-elevation creatures on either of our trips—although we usually see sheep in nearby Badlands National Park.

MULE DEER—These are quite common…very similar to their white-tailed cousins we see often here in Minnesota, but with bigger ears.

ELK—These are have proven more elusive for us, too, but are there!

PREDATORS—Mountain lions, coyotes and fox are the larger resident predators. Black bears, while seen occasionally, are rare there.

The Scenery

As I already mentioned, our family has driven the Wildlife Loop twice, back in 2009 and this past June, 2017. The main attraction of this loop is, of course, the wildlife. Both times we wanted to end up at Mount Rushmore, and took a different route to get there each time. The main attraction of both these routes is the scenery:

IRON MOUNTAIN ROAD—What I remember most about this scenic drive are the several tunnels we went through heading north towards Mount Rushmore. Each tunnel is situated with a view of Rushmore as you drive through. And of course, each tunnel is closer and closer, so the view gets bigger and bigger. Very cool!

Black Hills mountains
The beautiful Black Hills mountains

NEEDLES HIGHWAY—The other route, which we took during our latest trip in June, follows Needles Highway. This highway is named for the tall spired rock formations and two narrow tunnels, culminating in The Needles Eye Tunnel—just barely wide enough for our Expedition and popup camper with maybe 8 inches to spare!

needles eye tunnel black hills
Needles Eye Tunnel—our camper barely fit through!

The Final Word

These same animals (except the burros) can be seen in the bigger parks of the Tetons and Yellowstone. But the Wildlife Loop in Custer is in a much more condensed area, so it doesn’t take nearly as much driving to see them. It’s very doable to drive this Loop and hit Mount Rushmore the same day.

Our kids loved this drive whether they were 11-15 like the first time, or 19-23, like this past summer.

Be aware that though there’s no fee to enter the Black Hills, the Wildlife Loop is in Custer State Park, so there’s a fee to take it. It was $20 per vehicle ($10 for motorcycles) in 2017.

Read: Vacationing in South Dakota’s Black Hills